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July 3, 2018, 5:11 p.m.
Business Models

Water in a news desert: New Jersey is spending $5 million to fund innovation in local news

The dollar amount isn’t huge, and it will barely put a dent in the crisis of local news. But it’s also an official statement that communities’ information voids are a problem worthy of government attention.

Compared to its peers, the United States is notoriously stingy when it comes to government dollars supporting media. Norway spends about $135 per capita each year on its public broadcasters; Germany spends $107, the U.K. $86, France $55, and Canada $22.

The U.S. spends about $2.25. (That’s about half a Starbucks grande iced caramel macchiato a year.)

This week, though, one state — New Jersey — took a small step in the other direction. On Monday, leaders agreed on a new state budget that includes $5 million in funding for innovative projects to improve local news in the state. Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to give his final signoff soon.

The Civic Info bill, pushed by the advocacy group Free Press, devotes funds from the sale of two old public-television licenses to start a nonprofit news incubator called the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium; it’ll seek donations and grants to grow from there. (A number of American public TV stations are temporarily flush after selling off some of their public spectrum to phone companies, and there’ve been efforts to ensure at least some of that money goes toward the news needs of communities. One of the more interesting efforts is happening right across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.)

The growing void in local news is a problem nationwide, but it has long been keenly felt in New Jersey. Being stuck between two giant and expensive TV markets, New York and Philadelphia, has left much of the state with little or no local TV coverage; the state’s newspapers have struggled along with newspapers everywhere else, with layoffs after layoffs. As one state resident put it at a public forum about the consortium idea:

I live in a news desert [Warren County] that became a news desert because of layoffs and cutbacks in coverage by mainstream media that used to cover us pretty well. We actually have a contested local election in my township, first time in a while, but the only place I can get any information is on Facebook and what I read there I don’t trust.

Or as Mike Rispoli, director of the Free Press Action Fund News Voices (what a title!), put it in a press release Monday:

Despite the good work of many talented journalists across the state, years of runaway media consolidation, layoffs, and newsroom closings have left many communities with little to no local news coverage. That’s not just bad for the journalism industry — it’s harmful to our communities and our democracy.

As local news has been hit hard by digital change, a number of people have talked about building some sort of endowment — funded by a government, a foundation, or a tech billionaire — to build a sustainable backbone of local coverage. (Here’s one argument calling for an $8 billion endowment.) But those ideas are mostly just Medium posts; this New Jersey fund, while small, is actually happening.

The consortium will use five of New Jersey’s universities — the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Rutgers University — as collaborators and as infrastructure. The idea is that they can supply the sort of established, institutional resources and partnerships that startups or new news projects lack. Rispoli told me this help might take the form of interns, academic resources, or expertise. The schools will also provide an additional 10 percent to the amount of grants the consortium funds. This, Rispoli said, “provides a path for sustainability.”

Nervous about state money going to fund journalism — especially in a state with a lessthansqueakyclean reputation for public corruption? The bill, which you can read here, says that grantees “shall be independent from the influence of the State, a member university, and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source” and that grantees will receive written confirmation “that the grant or donation does not entitle the grantor or contributor to dictate or influence the content of any work the grantee produces or may produce.”

The new entity will be governed by a board of 15 that would select grant proposals. Members of the board would be selected by the governor, the legislature, and the five universities; others would represent community groups, media companies, and the tech sector. Grantees will need to be partnered with one of the five public institutions and an “off-campus” partner, and they’ll need to show demonstrable usefulness for a local community. What will those projects be? Rispoli outlined some of the ideas presented at the 10 public forums held last year to raise support for the bill:

…municipal-website templates designed for easy navigation, media-literacy programs for students and adults, mini-grants for reporting projects, young-journalist fellowship programs serving overlooked communities, and local data apps to provide mobile access to key government data, e.g., restaurant-inspection records, social-service contacts, environmental data, and roadwork and traffic data.

Other ideas raised: creating small embedded newsrooms within universities and journalism training programs for citizens.

The bill had bipartisan support — imagine that! — and was backed by dozens of community groups who, in an endorsement to state officials, said the funding would lead to “an engaged, invigorated population better positioned to spark positive change.”

This was the second time the Civic Info bill has been before the legislature; the first time, last year, the bill didn’t see much action. But this time was different. Rispoli is now cautiously optimistic. “This is a different way for states to invest in trustworthy, quality news,” he said. “And not just to journalism, but investment in civic engagement ideas, too.”

Assuming Murphy signs the budget within the next 45 days, the next immediate step will be to form the 15-member board, which would then need to appoint an executive director. In the meantime, the Free Press Action Fund will continue to host forums and receive feedback on the project. And it’s likely at least some of the other 49 states will be watching the process unfold with interest.

Photo of Rispoli testifying at the New Jersey statehouse by Tim Karr used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 3, 2018, 5:11 p.m.
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